Pre-1940 Race and Hillbilly Vocals
Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Jilson Setters, Uncle Eck
Dunsford, Clarence Ashley, Dock Boggs, Grayson
and Whitter, Bukka White, Robert Johnson, Roosevelt
Graves, Jullius Daniels, Rev. D. C. Rice, Lonnie Mc-
Intosh, Tommy McClennan, and many others.
HARRY E. SMITH
5 ½ Panoramic, Berkeley 4, California
Harry Smith placed this ad in local newspapers all over the southern part of the United States in 1940 through 1949. He was looking for the 78-RPM records people were digging out of their attics and cellars - making them more and more scarce; they were melted down and used to make shellac for fighter planes. Over the next few years Smith amassed the finest collection of folk, blues, and traditional music ever.
This collection would eventually become his most well known project: the Anthology of American Folk Music Volumes One, Two and Three (1951). This and the festivals that followed are credited with inspiring the folk revival of the 1950’s and 60’s.
The story behind Harry Smith’s life and art is as interesting as any of the beat era writers and artists – in fact, due to his rotten luck (like the blues men he loved), often more so.
He was born May 29, 1923 in Bellingham, Washington. His parents lived in separate houses on the same property. Because he was a wild storyteller little is known about his early years. Harry was interested in the occult from an early age and told a tale of his father Robert giving him a full blacksmith shop at age 12 and telling him to turn lead into gold. Mother Mary claimed she was descended from Russian royalty – Harry expanded this into claiming that she was Anastasia. Smith once bragged that he was the son of Alistair Crowley.
"He had me build all these things like models of the first Bell phone, the original electric light bulb, and perform all sorts of historical experiments. I once discovered in the attic of our house all those illuminated documents with hands with eyes in them, all kinds of Masonic deals that belonged to my grandfather. My father said I shouldn't have seen them and he burned them up immediately.”
He became interested in Native American culture, dances and music in grade school, where many of his classmates were from the local tribes. He began making animated films in high school by drawing directly on film and using the colors of the tribes’ blankets and art.
After high school he studied anthropology at the University of Washington. He had begun collecting records in the last year of high school and was interested in recording the songs and sounds of the Native Americans he respected so much. He made his first field recording of the Swinomish Tribe in 1942. He never lost his love for the culture of the regional tribes, and was a welcomed by many over the course of his life.
By the time he left for Berkeley at age 22, he had amassed a collection of thousands of records. He worked more on his hand painted films and began oil painting. He did some murals on buildings in and around Berkeley, but none survive today. All of his paintings were made to be viewed while listening to certain musical selections (usually jazz or blues). He kept up his prolific record collecting – even while on unemployment.
In 1950 he received a grant from the Guggenheim to come to New York and work for a month in a studio in Manhattan. He quickly decided to move there permanently and moved into the midst of writers, artists and most importantly to him, jazz musicians. He became a jazz fanatic, and sometimes said he had moved to New York just “to hear Thelonius Monk play”.
But by 1951 he was flat broke. No money, no food. He became desperate. He sold half of his record collection to the New York Public Library at 35 cents a piece. He took the other half – the best of them - to Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways Records. Moe bought the records, but once he saw the Harry was a fountain of obscure knowledge about each recording and performer, proposed to support him in creating an anthology.
Over the next months Smith put together the Anthology of American Folk Music. All the recordings were made between 1927, when electric recording debuted, to 1932. Accompanying the records was a booklet full of information about each artist and recording, including title, artist, instrumentation, recording date, original issue number, condensed lyrics, Smith’s notes about the origin of the songs or performers, discography, and bibliography. The layout of the booklet is also true to the genre; the art and photos of the musicians are treasures. The feel of the entire project is like having some wonderful and arcane information passed down to you from another generation.
At the end of Smith’s introduction to the Anthology, he wrote:
“Volumes 4, 5, and 6, of this series, will be devoted to examples of rhythm changes between 1890 and 1950.”
Sadly, when he had sold half of his vast collection to the New York Public Library
, they had separated the recordings from his careful notes, and subsequently disposed of the notebooks. Because full information wasn’t available, and bickering
over the inclusion over a political song about Theodore Roosevelt, volume 4 wouldn’t be released in Harry Smith’s lifetime, and volumes 5 and 6 were never created at all.
In the early 1960’s Smith was evicted from his apartment on East 75th Street. The landlords opened his door, carried all his belongings including paintings, books, and collections – everything downstairs and left it on the street. By the time he returned home, it was all gone. He had friends scouring pawnshops and even digging through a landfill, but not one piece was ever found. Though interviews with people close to him at the time say this drove him to depression and alcohol, Harry entered a time of great work on his art and anthropology.
Over the next ten years, Harry Smith became a collector of collections. He collected shells and spoons, Ukrainian Easter eggs and old keys. He made a study of underlying principles of Highland Tartans. He would later donate the largest collection of paper airplanes ever amassed to Smithsonian Institute's National Air and Space Museum, each noted with where he acquired it and how it was made. He was still involved with the occult and was a member of the Ordo Templi Orientis, he collected tarot cards and Crowley first editions (one of which, in a fit of rage, he threw in to a men’s room urinal). He also collected string figures and games, again in an anthropological and studious way. He knew string games from every region of the world, Africa to Alaska.
"They are indexes to a great variety of thoughts. They're like encyclopedias of designs. You can look in the Oxford English Dictionary if you want to study words, but being that designs on the eggs are so ancient, they're like 20 or 30 thousand years old, it's like having something superior to a book. These collections have been built up fundamentally to have an index of design types that I might want to use in my paintings."
One of his haunts was the Psychic Eye Bookshop, home to the Fugs. He was there when they played their first song, and convinced them to record an album, which he engineered and mastered. He recorded albums for Thelonius Monk and Billie Holliday. It was there he met Allan Ginsberg, who became a lifelong friend. He made spoken word and song recordings of Ginsberg, designed a few book jackets, and embarked on some of his most ambitious film projects (Film #18 or Mahogany as it is known was an animated film made to be projected on three screens at once) but for all his artistic productivity, he remained dirt poor.
He was thrown out of hotel after hotel and wandered the United States until he was an old man. In 1988 his old friend Allen Ginsberg got him a position as Shaman in Residence at The Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where he gave lectures and was given enough money to continue his art, film and collecting (his home on the grounds of the campus is now The Harry Smith Print Shop). In February 1991 he received a Chairman's Merit Grammy Award for his folk recordings. In October of that same year, he died at the Chelsea Hotel at the age of 68.
In 1997, Smithsonian Folkways re-released The Anthology of American Folk Music, sparking a new wave of interest in both regional folk music and Smith himself. That same year a live tribute album was recorded by, among others: Roger McGuinn, John Sebastian, Ella Jenkins, and the Fugs. The Coen Brothers began compiling the soundtrack of their film O Brother, Where Art Thou in late 1998. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles held Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular – a symposium in March 2001.
In 2000 The Anthology of American Folk Music Volume 4 was finally released. Though the notes on each selection are not as complete as Volumes 1 –3, there is information on each piece written by Dick Spottswood. The double CD set comes with extensive liner notes outside of the artist info; contributors Ed Saunders, John Cohen, Greil Marcus, and John Fahey have lovingly turned it into a tribute to Harry Smith, the alchemist anthropologist musicologist beatnik wandering collector.
The Harry Smith Archives -- http://www.harrysmitharchives.com
You can buy some of his films and art, as well as AAFM Volume 4
The Harry Smith Symposium at The Getty -- http://www.getty.edu/research/programs/public/harrysmith
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings -- http://www.folkways.si.edu/harry/hsa.htm
Allen Ginsberg: First Blues (1981) F-37560
Naropa University -- http://www.naropa.edu
Kiowa Peyote Meeting (1965) F-4601
No specific Smith info here, just interesting to see where he spent his last years.
Anthology of American Folk Music edited by Harry Smith (1951/1997)
Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music, Volume 4
The Harry Smith Connection: A Live Tribute (1997)